Cost-Sharing for School Salad Bars

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October 8, 2012 by hannahemartin1

We all like exercising our freedom of choice instead of being told what to do and kids are certainly no exception. So it’s no surprise that the more fruit and vegetable choices kids are given, the more they end up eating. Several national food groups are taking this to heart in supporting Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools and the goal of getting 6000 salad bars into schools in three years. But that is less than 6% of the more than 100,000 schools participating in the National School Lunch program, highlighting the need for a larger-scale grant program.

Kids eat up to half their calories per day at school, making cafeterias a hot research topic. The Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University has put together a wealth of very low cost modifications for lunch rooms to increase fruit and vegetable consumption that largely involve highlighting healthier foods in visually appealing ways. Salad bars in particular have been endorsed by the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity as a way to provide healthier foods to kids. A fully stocked salad bar instantly provides a wealth of fruit and vegetable choices for kids, which can’t come soon enough based on the IOM’s 2009 School Meals Report that schools need to increase the quantity and variety of fruit and vegetables offered to meet kids’ health needs.

So where is the disconnect? As it turns out, there are several. Putting a salad bar into a cafeteria isn’t even on the radar for many food service managers and goes against the traditional wisdom that kids don’t like vegetables. A salad bar also requires extra thought be put into purchasing and meal planning when the salad bar is first operational. For those who are on the veggie-train, capital cost is a huge barrier. While charging just a few dollars per meal and receiving just $2.34 for free lunches from the NSLP, school food authorities are faced with the challenge of covering the costs of food, labor, and supplies while remaining profitable.

Through Salad Bars to Schools, a total of $2,500 must be raised (based on fund raising and total purchase goals) to purchase and ship a $1,300 salad bar to each school. To put that in terms of the National School Lunch program’s budget, that’s one lunch for 1070 kids or 0.000031% of the program’s annual budget. With the White House and IOM backing school salad bars, it only makes sense for the government to put its money where its research is.

In an attempt to keep the cost to the Federal Government at a functional minimum, a cost-share program should be instated. A sliding scale subsidy for the salad bars based on the percentage of free and reduced lunch at each school would be appropriate. For example, a school with 90% of kids on free and reduced lunch would receive a 90% subsidy for the purchase of a salad bar leaving an elementary school of 250 students with less than $1 per student to generate (via their current food service budget, fund raising efforts, private grants, etc.). States would be free to allocate their own funds to cover the cost difference as well.

In addition to reasonable monetary contributions, schools should also be required to submit proof of readiness for a salad bar before the investment is made. Food purchasing for a lunchroom with a salad bar is substantially different from that of a traditional lunchroom. Sample menus and budgets should be submitted for at least 1 month in the winter and 1 month in peak growing season. Signed approval should also be required from food service managers, principles, and district superintendents to ensure buy-in and accountability at the local level.

Based on these readiness requirements for schools and a moderate cost single-time purchase, maximum benefit can be derived from this program. Salad bars will be provided to school that want them, are ready for them, and need the financial assistance to purchase them, limiting waste and underuse.

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5 thoughts on “Cost-Sharing for School Salad Bars

  1. brooksy says:

    Hannah,
    I really like your ideas. It seems like you’re a bit skeptical of salad bars in schools. I’d be interested to hear other ideas you have to tackle child nutrition in schools. It seems like schools need to have alternative options for increasing fruit and vegetable consumption.
    I like the thought of the government being able to subsidize the cost of schools in need of financial assistance, but where will this money come from?
    I really like the sliding scale idea. The menu differences to account for seasonal produce is a really nice idea, but it makes me wonder what we can do to address food deserts and how costs will differ in places like rural North Dakota in January versus Chapel Hill, North Carolina. What are your thoughts?
    If subsidizing was not feasible, then what could schools with such limited budgets and often highest needs of nutrition improvements do?
    Also, measuring readiness for such costly programs makes sense because the resources are more likely to be used effectively, but what do we do about schools that are never ‘ready’, but have the highest needs for such programs?

    • I think if schools were not able to get federal assistance for this program (which I would propose come from taxes OR a decrease in commodities spending), it could still be piloted by states or even districts. In the grand scheme of school food service, $2,500 isn’t much and I feel like this is a hot enough topic on the nation’s collective mind that it would have a decent chance as a school or district fundraiser–especially since it’s a 1-time purchase and not a yearly/ongoing cost for a school. AND it’s portable so if one school has dismal results, the bar could always be transferred to another school in the district.

      If a salad bar was out of the question, I think there are still lots of ideas to be tried to increase fruit and vegetable consumption. The Food and Brand Lab that I briefly mentioned has a ton of tips on this. For example, if a student goes to purchase lunch and didn’t select a fruit, simply asking if the student wanted fruit with that (a la “Fries with that?”) and having them in an attractive container (like the hanging fruit baskets at the Atrium Cafe) increased fruit sales tremendously. They also suggested naming foods to cute names that the kids came up with, putting healthy items first in line, and making healthy items more accessible while moving less healthy options to the back or to less convenient locations.

  2. lschoenfeld says:

    I think salad bars are a good idea, but I wonder how effective they are for young children.

    How many of us remember eating salads as a kid? I’m pretty sure the first time I started eating salads regularly was when I was a young teen vaguely aware of the pressures to maintain a certain body shape. The popular girls all frequented the salad bar, so of course that piqued my interest in eating vegetables too. (For a while. Then I gave up and deferred to eating baked ziti pizza at lunch. Yes it exists, and no I will never eat it again.)

    But as a younger child, I’m pretty sure the last thing I would have chosen is a salad for lunch. Not because my parents didn’t serve me vegetables at home, or that I had some unhealthy addiction to junk food as a kid. In fact, I ate pretty well for the most part and didn’t really have much junk food available to me either at home or in school. Sure, we were served the usual chicken nuggets and sloppy joes, but we weren’t bombarded with ‘a la carte’ items that were completely unnecessary and a source of added empty calories to an otherwise nutritionally adequate meal. I remember the celebration in the lunch room the day that we finally got Snapple drinks as an option besides milk and water. Kids are obviously going to go for the most delicious choice available to them if they have the option, so as long as these junk foods are served alongside the healthy food, kids are going to use their free will to choose the tastier option.

    I hate to be pessimistic about the popularity of salad bars with young kids, and who knows, maybe they’ll be a hit. Maybe I wasn’t aware of how much I’d like raw vegetables when I was 10. But I think a better system might be to make vegetables in a way that children actually enjoy eating them. Put butter on the green beans and broccoli. Cook the collards and kale with a touch of bacon. There’s no reason why vegetables shouldn’t taste good, and plus, the added fat actually improves the absorption of all those fat soluble vitamins that make these veggies so healthy in the first place. Kids had been eating veggies cooked in fat for hundreds of years before the USDA stepped in and told us that fat was killing us. (Which, by the way, its not.)

    I think using silly names like Super Spinach is a noble option, but why not just skip the psychological tricks and just make the vegetables taste good? And while we’re at it, if we just got rid of the bulk of the chips, cookies, and Snapple drinks that are being purchased by kids instead, they’d have no other choice but to buy the healthier, whole foods lunch items. I say just put butter on all the vegetables, get rid of the Cheetos, and see if the kids really miss the junk food that bad when the veggies actually taste GOOD for once.

    • eldavies3 says:

      I agree, Laura! Thinking back to my school lunch days, I remember overcooked broccoli, flavorless mashed potatoes, and corn kernels straight out of the can (I ate a packed lunch usually — no canned corn for me.) Those vegetables wouldn’t have appealed to anyone, especially not most children. And they definitely didn’t have a hope of competing with pizza, chicken nuggets, or any of the other more flavorful options on the menu. I think salad bars could be a great addition in some schools, but some might need to ease their student population into accepting and eating more vegetables. Meanwhile, all schools could benefit from really considering how they prepare and present vegetables that are already on the menu. A little butter, a pinch of salt, and some garlic wouldn’t cost too much money or time to add. Plus, they could all go a long way to making veggies much more palatable and would still provide less fat and sodium than a “shrimp popper” (whatever that is.)

    • Making healthy options in a normal lunch line is also a great idea. The Food and Brand Lab at Cornell has a dozen or so video clips devoted to low-cost tips and tricks for school lunch rooms to increase sales of fruits the vegetables and decrease sales of a la carte items.

      The point of salad bar is for the salad to be a part of their meal and not the entire thing. They eat salads from paper containers that we would think of a hotdog or french fries coming in so nowhere near big enough to meet the minimum calorie requirements for school meals.

      I think children’s perception of vegetables is just that–a perception. If they grow up thinking that salad bars are normal then salad bars ARE normal. I think this would actually be a great teaching moment to show kids that salad isn’t what the skinny girls eat–it’s what everyone eats. I grew up eating salad as parts of specific meals (such as before eating pizza at the pizza buffet) because that’s just how my family ate. I did think that eating salad for an entire meal was strange, but the concept of lettuce and vegetables is as old as any other food-related memory. I can see how kids who don’t eat salad at home might find it strange at first, but isn’t the point of education to expose children to positive things that they wouldn’t get from the home?

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